This Little Bag of Dreams

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Category: Debut

Fear by Dirk Kurbjuweit

Fear Dirk Kurbjuweit

You’d die for your family.

But would you kill for them?

Fear is a fascinating novel to read in today’s climate of gun debate, and if you are interested in the real-life background which inspired Kurbjuweit, there is a great Guardian article by him here.  The situation in the novel is, of course, totally different from America’s horror story, but the ‘us against them’ trope is firmly relevant here.  When we rely on the law to solve our problems and the law fails us, what do we do?

Randolph Tiefenethaler lives with his wife and two children in a Berlin apartment.  Their life is largely pleasant: they love their children and are comfortably off due to Randolph’s architecture career.  However, their neighbour in the basement decides that they are sexually abusing their children.  What’s more, he is also in love with Randolph’s wife.  They seek legal advice and tell the police; they also offer to buy the neighbour’s apartment.  We are always being told that ‘money talks’.  But in Fear, ultimately, money means very little: it buys you neither peace nor happiness.  But a gun? Now you’re talking.   But who is to do the murder?  Randolph, a father of young children, or his elderly father, an avid collector of weapons?

The Australian edition of Fear

The ‘monster in the basement’ is not only their stalker neighbour, but also a metaphor for the couple’s various fears: for Randolph, that he does not love his wife anymore, that she is, in fact, abusing their children, and that he is becoming his father; for his wife, that Randolph is an abuser, that he does not love her anymore, and that she will never craft out a career for herself.

I was hoping, from seeing the cover, that Fear would be more a fast-paced, than psychological, thriller, and for me, the twist was unsurprising.  But is remains an original and brave work.

Fear works backwards, much like Amis’s Time’s Arrow.  It is not so much a whodunnit, as a whydunnit – indeed, some might call it a whydidyounotdoitsooner?  You will have to read the novel and decide for yourself what you think.

Hot Mess by Lucy Vine

If you’ve ever woken up feeling like The Apex of Shite, next to a hungover questionable decision and the remains of a kebab, then congratulations, you are a hot mess.  Other telltale signs of a hot mess include supposedly sorted friends, a job which you are desperate to leave and a flat on a road which may well have inspired AC/DC’s Highway to Hell.  But do not fear!  Other hot messes are out there, most notably in the form of Ellie Knight, whom you will meet/drunkenly walk into in Lucy Vine’s debut novel, which, you’ve guessed it, just so happens to be called Hot Mess.

I’d been seeing a buzz build up around Hot Mess for a while, and follow Vine both on Twitter and through her gutsy Grazia columns, so was thrilled to receive a review copy.  And reader, from its hot pink cover to its porn-writing character (more on that later!), it does not disappoint.

Taking my copy to Brighton with me, I sat down at a dubious looking pub and gulped down half the novel, much like our hapless protagonist might down an Apple Sours.  It opens on Valentine’s Day, traditionally a day loathed by single people – hell, make that all SANE people – and Ellie is waiting for a date, arranged by her well-meaning but miserable sister, who never appears.  The novel continues in this vein, Ellie’s life, not measured out in Eliot’s coffee spoons, but in Tinder dates.  We meet her mostly hideous colleagues, at her mostly hideous job; we see her avoid her flat because it is unforgiveably hideous, and inhabited by a flatmate with a penchant for empty shower gel bottles.  What saves the novel itself from being unbearably depressing is how funny and relatable it all is.  Plus, Ellie’s widower dad’s homage to E L James, relayed to us in handy chunks, is hilarious.

And Vine nails it the whole way through, she really does: who hasn’t drunk-dialled a would be date, or slept with a housemate, or been harassed endlessly by their friends and family with the question, ‘Have you met someone special?’?  It gets right to the core of what it is to be human, in fact, never mind female and single.  Witness the scene where Ellie has fallen out with her best friend, Sophie, and Ellie’s acknowledgement of how awful it is that life goes on, despite dark times: it’s almost like life is mocking her.  Luckily for her, and for us, life gets bitch-slapped, and whilst she may still be hot at the novel’s end, she is no longer a mess.

Many thanks to Elaine Egan at Orion for the review copy.


Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley



UK edition

Do you like talking dachshunds?  Is your evening incomplete without a furry companion with whom to while away the evenings, devouring pizza and fighting over who gets to pick the Monopoly car?  Have you been heartbroken recently, or enough that the mere thought of that person still makes you shiver in remembrance?  Well, then Lily and the Octopus is for you.

To be honest, you don’t even need a pet to appreciate this fantastic debut, which has style as well as the all-important substance (check out the gorgeous moody sky blue ribbon bookmark on the hardback).  Granted – and I don’t want to give too much away here, so no spoilers! – it took me a while to get on board with Rowley’s inventiveness, but stick with it.  Trust me, the ride is worth it.


US edition

I want to tell you just enough to make you want you to read this, and not so much that I ruin it for you.  So meet Ted, a single lonely screenwriter, for whom company consists of his dachshund Lily and a tub of peanut butter ice cream (I presume that there are elements of autobiography here). Ted is trying to get back in the dating game after splitting with his partner, Jeffrey, but his attempts are unsuccessful, and it is telling that much of the novel consists of flashbacks.  Indeed, it is only when the octopus appears that Ted is forced to start giving some real thought to his future, and who might be in it.

So, what is this octopus?  Wrong question, reader – you must discover it yourself.  But suffice it to say, that if you like funny books (and if you don’t, that’s pretty weird) and cute dogs, then you will love Lily.  I’m just debating whether or not it’s wise to lend it to my dachshund-devoted cousin (she had six at one point)……..

Many thanks to Sara-Jade Virtue at Simon & Schuster for the review copy.

P.S.  I want a dachshund now.  Damn you, Steven Rowley.



See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Above left to right: Australian cover and UK cover

Lizzie Borden took an axe,

And gave her mother forty whacks

When she saw what she had done,

She gave her father forty-one

Myra Hindley, Mary Bell, Lizzie Borden: history is positively brimming with murderous women.  Of course, there are plenty of male butchers too, but nothing quite fascinates us like a woman who has killed.  Why should it be any different?  Surely male and female murderers should have equal rights, and equal gruesome obsession attributed to them?  But they don’t*: it is Hindley on whom an artwork is based, and it is Lizzie Borden who is the subject of Sarah Schmidt’s disturbing debut novel.

Something is rotten in the state of Fall River, and it isn’t just the pears Lizzie Borden is devouring.  No, murder most foul has been committed; ‘Someone’s killed father’, as Lizzie shouts to the maid.  But, oh no, it isn’t just Mr Borden lying ‘cut’ on the sofa, with an axe, as the old rhyme goes, for Mrs Borden has also been murdered.  Whodunnit?  The maid, Bridget?  The uncle, John Morse?  For no one was ever convicted of the killings (only Lizzie was ever on trial), giving writers and directors ripe material for novels and television adaptations.

Madness is as compelling to watch as murder, and it plays a huge part in See What I Have Done.  Lizzie is clearly suffering from attachment disorder, as she misses obsessively not only her long dead mother, but also her sister Emma, who has moved elsewhere to escape the oppressive 92 Second Street.  Moreover, her behaviour is not typical of a recently bereaved daughter or innocent woman; Bridget testified that she heard Lizzie laughing from the top of the stairs around the time of Abby’s murder, and she was reported by police as being calm and confident when questioned.  Schmidt plays on these facts, and presents to us a Lizzie who is both eerily girlish for a woman in her thirties, and clearly suffocating her elder sister with her need for love and company.  In her defence, however, the Borden household is anything but a happy one, and I wonder if the historical allegation that Andrew Borden abused Lizzie may  well be true.  What’s more, Bridget is saving her salary to find a new employer, and Abby is evidently reliant on her for emotional support as well as household duties.

So do we find out who killed the Bordens?  Well, of course not, dear reader, but that’s not the point.  What we do get from the novel is the confirmation that Andrew Borden was both thrifty to a fault and greatly envied in Fall River for his wealth.  We also get a good flavour of Lizzie (hopefully not reeking of rotten pears and mutton stew, for all of you with weak stomachs) and perhaps that’s all we can ever get, given that she said so little herself about the murders.

I found See What I Have Done an immensely compelling read, full to bursting with blood, guts, weirdos and rotting food.  As Georgina said to me, you will never eat mutton stew again!

Many thanks to Georgina at Headline for the proof copy.

*Yes, yes, I know, people are fixated on Jack the Ripper too.

Himself by Jess Kidd

It is a tremendous privilege to review the wonderful Himself on publication day.  And what better time to discover this fantastic debut, immersed as it is in the dead and a forest borrowed from the Brothers Grimm, than a dark autumn evening?

The story begins in that same forest in 1950 and then fast forwards to 1976, just like two other wonderful recent novels, Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions For a Heatwave and Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble With Goats and Sheep.  Furthermore, like those two novels, there is a mystery to be solved. The mystery relates to the parenthood of one Mahony, who arrives dirty and hippyish from the streets of Dublin with only a note and a photo as proof of his origins.  The villagers are adamant that Orla Sweeney departed Mulderrig twenty six years ago in the direction of Ennismore, and they will hear no more about one who, with her brazen ways, was so unpopular.  But Mahony and the eccentric old Mrs Cauley believe differently.  What happened to Orla? Did she leave Mulderrig alive? And if not, who killed her?

Himself is a truly stunning debut. Kidd’s writing is humorous and delightful; it’s original whilst still maintaining that beautiful Irish intonation.  If you like Angela Carter and Roddy Doyle, you will love this. 

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett




It was as if she had been split into two, even three versions of herself – living, breathing simulacra – and lost sight of the original. 

The Versions of Us has been called the new One Day.  Well frankly – and don’t tell David Nicholls – I think it’s better than that.  (Plus I have great hopes that it will be made into a great film, unlike One Day.)

I was very privileged to attend the launch for Barnett’s debut at Daunt Books.  It was not only my first trip to this bookselling Mecca, but also the first time I had felt such a concentrated shock of love within one room for a book.  There was a very fitting sense that this much-awaited novel, fought over at auction by so many publishers, had been a long time coming.  (You will know what I mean by ‘fitting’ if you have read the book.  If not, what are you waiting for?)

The novel, as you might have guessed, tells three different ‘Versions’ of a relationship.  The ‘Us’ of the title is Cambridge students Eva and Jim, who meet by chance one day when a cycling Eva swerves to avoid a dog.  Thereon in, Jim and Eva’s lives are in some way intertwined, whether as acquaintances, lovers or spouses.

What I found particularly clever, and what made the novel far more plausible, was Barnett’s easy way of incorporating events in more than one version of the story.  For example, early on in the novel, in Version Two, Jim’s friend Peter tells him about a girl’s failed suicide attempt (she is saved by her ‘billowing’ skirts, which form a sort of ‘parachute’).  Much later on, the same story is told again, only this time, Jim merely overhears it in the pub, and yet the man’s face is strangely familiar to Jim.  This strange familiarity, or deja vu, which Jim experiences is something we have all felt at times, and emphasises just how true to life Barnett’s characters are.

My only quibble with The Versions of Us would be the concentration required to keep abreast of the three different versions.  So do not read this too late at night!

It’s difficult to say much more about the novel without giving the plot (or plots) away.  Suffice it to say, this is a truly sparkling debut, and the honesty and love within will break your heart not once, not twice, but thrice.

Many thanks to Rebecca Gray at Weidenfeld & Nicolson for the  review copy.

You can see the different covers Weidenfeld & Nicolson toyed with here and also a fabulous blog on how they decided on the final cover here.

There is an interview with Laura Barnett on the W H Smith blog which you may find interesting.